It doesn’t matter if it’s an acoustic or an electric, buying the ‘right’ guitar is the goal. How to Buy a Guitar.
When I started playing, I visited a medium sized music store and found a Mexican Strat, black body, with a white pickguard…very Hendrix-esque as I was looking for at the time. I checked the relief of the neck, and the playability. Both really didn’t make a difference: my judgement was clouded by the idea that I could walk out of the store at the ‘pricepoint’ I wanted to be at. Pricepoint won over quality.
Next was a Joe Satriani JS1000 mahogany, fixed bridge guitar. I went almost the opposite end of the spectrum on this one. I bought ‘too much’ guitar! This was made for a shredder, and I after 20 years of playing, have discovered the wonderful truth: I am not a shredder. This simply was too fast of a neck for a kid just learning chords. (Yet secretly I loved almost everything Satriani had done to that point.) Quality overtook Pricepoint.
Finding the balance between pricepoint and quality is the way to calibrate your mind before stepping out to buy a guitar!
Rule #1. Always bring someone with you who has a good musical ear.
My wife helped me to buy my next few guitars. She picked a gibson LP over an epiphone SG for me, thank the living God.
She picked a new 2003 Cobalt Blue American Strat over a used 40th anniversary American. Again, thank the living God.
She knew the sound I was looking for, and knew what sounded good or bad when comparing guitars.
Every guitar my wife has helped me listen to at the store has felt like butter in my hands. Absolute heaven. If that feeling isn’t a part of your buying experience, then you are buying metal and wood…not a guitar. You would be buying a possession…not a guitar.
Rule #2. Take your time
Pick up a few different guitars, from various price points. Sit down with a clean, simple amp (i.e. Fender Blues Jr.) try some chords and simple lead lines on each. For an acoustic, the same thing sans amp. This isn’t a race, guitars are still in production, and good instruments are easily found if you look in the right places.
Make sure there isn’t some psycho metal head with something to prove sitting next to you cranking their amp trying to play a less-than-acceptable version of ‘Master of Puppets’. We all know that guy.
Ask your friend what they think of the sound. Ask yourself what you think of the sound. It’s worth it to buy a good guitar now than a crappy guitar and wishing for the next step up while walking to the register. If you are committed player, get the next step up.
I wish that I could have had the options for the latest Fenders Strats series from $400-$600. These are great electrics at a good quality, good sound. Gibson and Epiphone have always felt different to me. I’d beg people who are looking to buy a Les Paul style guitar to ALWAYS get a Gibson Les Paul Studio before a high end Epiphone.
Listen, feel, and try out different guitars. Believe me, Guitar Center DOES NOT have every brand in the world. And please, oh please, don’t buy a Seagull guitar. for me, don’t buy it. Sometimes a Washburn, Fender, or Yamaha sounds and feels better than a Taylor. I’m not sold on Taylor, but then I’m a hack anyways! Larrivee almost always sounds great. Same with Fursch. A ‘solid-top’ acoustic usually always sounds better than a lesser model, and the price usually follows suit.
Sometimes this is true: You pay more for better tone. Keep in mind that equipment is 5-10% of your tone, the rest is in your fingers.
Ma and Pa stores usually offer a single brand of guitars, look for a store that offers four or more different brands, including at least a Fender or Gibson brand.
Rule #3. Know your Budget – Don’t go shopping without it.
Try to stay close to a budget. We all can’t go out and buy the top-of-the-line strat, and God Bless those who can.
Rule #4. Try before you Buy
Note that I said nothing about buying a guitar online. You might get a good guitar, you might get a bad guitar with a bad action, warped truss rod, cheaper electronics, etc. I’m just playing it safe by buying from a brick and mortar store where I know what I’ve played. There are some awesome deals out there, and online retailers are cheaper and wonderful to buy things like pedals and sometimes amps through. But when it comes to the tension of strings, neck and saddles, I just am leery. I have to get over this, there are some great guitars out there, and friends of mine have bought some awesome instruments online as well.
#5. Be friendly with the Salesman, but be smart.
Be nice, but don’t get taken for a ride. As my wife says, “Even the most book-smart person can lack street-smarts.” Be learned, but be wise as a snake. Even if the salesman riffs off some song you know or absolutely shows you the guitar sounds like God, it’s going to be you playing the guitar, not him/her.
Ted Nugent once tried out Eddie Van Halen’s rig, and wondered why he couldn’t get the tones out of the guitar like Eddie. Eddie simply said, “It’s in the fingers.” He couldn’t be more right. Don’t worry, YOUR tone will come to you in time. Choose your ‘right’ guitar, not the salesman’s ‘right’ guitar. Hopefully you will come across a salesman who truly wants to help you connect with your future guitar. If you find this salesman, go back to them for future purchases.
My guitar teacher told me some tips to look for when going to hunt out the perfect guitar.
- Check the straightness of the neck. Look down the relief of the neck from the side from the soundhole or pickups towards the headstock. It should have a very slight curvature to it. Usually most newly produced guitars have this as a characteristic. (Carlos Santana was playing Woodstock and the humidity made the neck of his guitar warp like crazy. It affected his tuning and his playing dramatically, he recalls)
- Buying a used instrument is more risky than buying a new one that comes with a warranty, but can be a great opportunity to discover guitars that people have kept in their attic for years that still sound great.
- Practice, practice, practice. Make the newly bought guitar – yours
These random thoughts hopefully give you a little bit more knowledge to pull from as you look for that next amazing instrument!